August Wilson gave a voice to the unsung

The man in the familiar cap sat in the sunshine near the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston. I did a double take. This was August Wilson, winner of two Pulitzer prizes, catching some rays like an ordinary mortal.

But, wait, the point of Wilson's unprecedented cycle of modern history plays is that there are no ordinary mortals. He gave a voice to the unsung whose individuality had been overlooked.

I apologized for invading the playwright's privacy but couldn't help saying how much I enjoyed his work at the Huntington. He smiled, said something friendly, and went back to the sun.

The image is warming in the tide of tributes after Wilson's death on Sunday in Seattle. Soon he will join the pantheon of such theater legends as Eugene O'Neill and George Gershwin when a New York theater is named for him. His larger legacy is in tune with the epigraph for "Fences," his first Pulitzer winner:

When the sins of our fathers visit us
We do not have to play host.
We can banish them with forgiveness
As God, in His Largeness and Laws.

"Fences" conquered Broadway in 1987. It starred James Earl Jones as Troy, a former baseball whiz, now collecting garbage with Bono, whose friendship, as noted in the stage directions, is "rooted in his admiration of Troy's honesty, capacity for hard work, and his strength, which Bono seeks to emulate."

Wilson said in a Monitor interview: "We have been told so many times how irresponsible we are as black males that I try to present positive images of responsibility. I started the play with an image of a man standing with a baby in his arms.''

"Fences" represents the 1950s in Wilson's 10-play project, concluding with "Radio Golf" about an entrepreneur in the '90s: "I'm taking each decade and looking at one of the most important questions that blacks confronted in that decade and writing a play about it. Put them all together and you have a history.''

Wilson grew up in the Pittsburgh neighborhood he wrote about after leaving for Minnesota and points west. He was self-taught, courtesy of the public library. He came to the theater following such other African-Americans as James Baldwin ("The Amen Corner"), Lorraine Hansberry ("A Raisin in the Sun"), and Ntozake Shange ("for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf").

The scope of Wilson's ambition and achievement puts him "beyond category," to use a Duke Ellington phrase. But Wilson embraced the category of black. He told Essence magazine: "From Bessie Smith's records I learned to look at the people around me differently [and see that] as Black Americans we all had a song that was in us."

Wilson's song had the freedom and interplay of jazz. He named "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" for a W.C. Handy blues number about Joe Turner, a bounty hunter who sold blacks into servitude. The story is set in 1911 amid challenges to Southern blacks moving north.

I confess this play, with its "voodoo" man, almost seemed to invite a nonblack spectator to look down on black stereotypes and dialect. But Wilson's quest for authenticity suggested otherwise. He was writing not about race but about individuals suffering and overcoming and having fun while facing racial oppression. To John Beaufort, then the Monitor's New York theater critic, "Joe Turner" became "a human drama of heroic proportions."

Wilson made Boston a frequent pre-Broadway stop for burnishing scripts and pruning dialogue that burgeoned to eloquent heights from street-corner banter. The Huntington's latest Wilson play, "Gem of the Ocean" (fall 2004), was the earliest in time. Set in 1904, it centers on Aunt Ester, who was talked about in another play as living for 366 years, the same number that Africans had been in America.

"She's the most important character: All the cycle's characters are her children," said Wilson. In "Gem" she's only in her 260s and somehow theatrically plausible even in supernatural circumstances.

As Wilson gained fame he spoke out for increased support of black theater and against "colorblind" theater, arguing his plays needed the understanding of a black director not because of "race" but because of "culture." Critic Robert Brustein argued back on antisegregation grounds in a widening debate that continues to bring soul-searching.

Wilson's early champion had been Lloyd Richards, Brustein's successor as head of the Yale Repertory Theater. "The talent was unmistakable," said Richards. "The characters were alive. They were people I had met in the barbershop on Saturday morning."

Thank you, Mr. Wilson, for letting the rest of us listen in.

Roderick Nordell is a former editor at the Monitor.

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